Making a circular European bioeconomy happen

Written by Sylvain Lhôte on 21 September 2018 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

The European forest fibre and paper industry is a catalyst for Europe’s circular bioeconomy, explains Sylvain Lhôte.

Photo credit: CEPI


Mastering the wood value chain, from procurement down to creating value from by-products, Europe’s forest fibre and paper industries are remarkably well placed to play a central role in the development of a European circular bioeconomy.

And EU policies have a crucial role in fostering this development.

When we released our 2050 ‘Investment Roadmap’ towards a low-carbon economy, CEPI, the European association representing the forest fibre and paper industry, demonstrated how bio-based products, both existing and innovative ones, would contribute to economic growth, jobs and mitigating climate change.

We can now put hard numbers on the investments needed to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions by 80 per cent while creating an additional value of 50 per cent.


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To reach this objective around €45bn would be needed between now and 2050. The development of a European circular bioeconomy is the backbone of this transformation.

Today, pulp and paper mills, mostly in rural areas, operate almost as biorefineries, producing not only the paper-based products we are familiar with, but also renewable heat and electricity, biofuels, textile fibres for clothes, novel bio-materials and chemicals, medication, food additives and much more.

All of this is achieved from one of Europe’s home-grown, best-managed, renewable resources – the tree – making us a central player in Europe’s bioeconomy.

Investment by forest owners and sustainable forest management practices have made forests into one of the very few growing natural resources in Europe.

Over the past ten years they have increased by an area equivalent to the size as Switzerland and only two-thirds of their annual growth is actually used by industry.

"Today, pulp and paper mills, mostly in rural areas, operate almost as biorefineries, producing not only the paper-based products we are familiar with, but also renewable heat and electricity, biofuels, textile fibres for clothes, novel bio-materials and chemicals, medication, food additives and much more"

As it stands, more than 70 per cent of the wood we use is of certified origin. We also source more than 90 per cent of the pulp wood we use from within the EU.

At the same time, the wood we use does not compete with other land uses and contrary to most materials or feedstock Europe needs, its supply is domestic and secured.

Forests and forest products are also the most efficient mechanism to capture, store and use carbon. The industry’s record level of recycling - 72.3 per cent - uniquely places us as a bridge between the circular economy and the bioeconomy.

Wood products can also replace many of today’s fossil-based products in areas such as packaging, textile, fuel, and chemicals. Who, for example, knows that vanilla flavours can be extracted from wood? What about nanocellulose fibres? These Nano-sized versions of cellulose - the material that makes up a tree - are stronger than spider silk.

And who knows that wafer-like layers of cardboard can offer the same performance as aluminium in some car parts, while being much lighter? Or what about lignin, also produced from trees, that can be used as a gluing additive for cement and concrete?

"Financial support for investment, especially in demonstration and first-of-a-kind bioeconomy projects should be more widely available. Preference for bio-based products should be part of public and private procurement decisions"

These are just a few examples of why the forest fibre and paper industry matters for Europe’s bioeconomy and is certainly not the limit of the value a bio-based industry can bring for society.

Achieving this cannot happen however unless the enabling conditions are secured and that fair and competitive access to sustainable raw materials are facilitated.

Financial support for investment, especially in demonstration and first-of-a-kind bioeconomy projects should be more widely available. Preference for bio-based products should be part of public and private procurement decisions.

With the publication of its updated Bioeconomy Strategy just around the corner and the upcoming new Horizon Europe research programme in the pipeline, the timing could not be better for the EU to address these challenges and foster a truly circular European bioeconomy.

The European forest fibre and paper industry, building on its renewable and recyclable roots, stands ready to play its part in making it happen.

Building on our renewable and recyclable roots, we stand ready to play our part in making it happen.

About the author

Sylvain Lhôte is the Director General of CEPI, the European association representing the forest fibre and paper industry

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